With a little over a week left before I will say goodbye to Master Gu, George, Uncle Wang and the WTWA, I thought I’d sit down, put my toe spreaders on and write a little about Daoism and how I feel about my feet.
They’re funny things, these toe spreaders. Stretchy silicone bands wrap around each toe except for the big ones—I don’t really know why they are kept out of the exercise, but I have a separate rubber band to pull the big toes outward—and softly firm spacers gently push the toes apart. I got them from the website where I bought my barefoot sandals last year, which I have worn almost every day since spring, only changing into shoes for certain terrain and for taiji training. (Although I train barefoot, too.)
Why toe spreaders?
Well, as I observed the other day again when I was marvelling at the miniature perfection of Master Gu’s newborn daughter, we are generally born with naturally aligned lower digits: toes that point to the front, extending out in a straight line from the bones in the foot. What’s more, we can spread them easily like we can spread our fingers. When we walk, when we stand, we do so for balance and stability.
Then we start wearing shoes.
Shoes that as we grow older become less and less geared to allowing our feet to exist in a natural state. Shoes with thick, slanted soles. Shoes with padding that supports the arches of our feet so that we stop training those muscles and get flat, overproning feet. Shoes with narrow toe boxes that squeeze and scrunch our toes together. Because they are shoes that are in fashion and look amazing. So we choose style over comfort and bit by bit our toes grow crooked, our posture misaligns and our feet, well, our feet suffer.
This is the story, in a nutshell, behind the barefoot-shoe movement. I myself wore insoles, orthotics, for years. A podiatrist had told me that I had flat feet, adding that in the West at least 75% of men have flat feet but many don’t know and/or don’t care. What a potential market for podiatrists! The insoles significantly raised my foot inside any shoe I tried on, cost as much as an expensive pair of trainers and made it virtually impossible to buy the shoes I wanted to buy, because modern shoes usually come with glued-in footbeds and insoles of their own.
So I had to either size up or rip out the footbed, which often damaged the shoe and left chunks of insole and glue on top of which I would have to place the orthotics. I kept all these insoles in a stack in my cupboard, hidden away in a corner of the shelf that carried their eviscerated counterparts. From time to time I would reunite shoes and entrails so that I could donate a few pairs to charity and another owner could wear them as new, at least as far as the insides were concerned.
The helpful podiatrist’s orthotics were designed to push up my arches on the insides of my feet, where the pricey hand-made supports were less yielding. Because they extended all the way into the toe box of any given pair of shoes, they filled up that often already underwhelming space even more. In all, it was not a time my feet enjoyed.
And I used to love shoes. With what I’m sure was nothing but affection, my friends called me Imelda, after the late Filipino dictator Marcos’s wife, who reportedly possessed a collection of nearly 3,000 pairs. Shoes were probably the one thing for which I actually enjoyed going to the shops. Enter the orthotics and much of that pleasure dwindled.
Then I started doing taiji. After six months or so, I noticed that I was standing differently, walking differently. My feet felt different. At my taiji school in Utrecht, we trained wearing only socks, so my balance had to come from my feet themselves, not from any supporting accessory with a brand, padding or air bubbles. My feet grew noticeably stronger and more flexible. In order to stand on one leg and move my upper body without toppling over, I needed my toes not in a clump but solidly affixed to as large a surface as possible. I needed to be able to spread them like I was able to when I was very young. And I needed strong and active foot muscles.
At about the same time, I heard from my mother and her husband about their struggles in finding comfortable footwear due to hallux valgus, or an inward-growing big toe. This often creates a painful bunion on the side of the foot, requiring extra width at a point in shoes where they usually slant inward toward the tip. The usual suspects causing hallux valgus range from hereditariness to rheumatism, with a prominent place being awarded to too narrow, constrictive footwear. When I looked down at my own early-middle-aged tootsies, I immediately recognized the onset of this pedal problem, especially in the right one of the pair.
My changing feet made me wonder if I really needed those orthotics anymore. I also wanted to nip that hallux valgus in the bud. So I started reading about foot health and healthy footwear, and found out that shoes in their current form are a relatively new invention and are remarkably influenced by running shoes, which in turn were a significant deviation from how we went shod before. The downward sloping soles, the already mentioned arch support, the padding for shock absorption: with every evolution, we took a step away from our natural foot abilities and made them increasingly lazy and unfree.
Let’s take a moment to acknowledge what we have put specifically women’s feet through for centuries. Heels? Seriously? We now accept that smoking to look cool or sexy cannot justify the damage to our bodies; we are not quite there yet when it comes to footwear. Luckily, as more and more people are rediscovering their feet (perhaps in part due to the ever-increasing popularity of yoga), barefoot-shoe designers are now churning out more and more models that are good for our feet and look good.
I discovered that we are born with feet that are equipped to deal with any kind of terrain, that can provide easy balance, that can run, stride, sprint and switch between paces and gaits with full flexibility. That we can train our feet, too, with certain exercises. That orthotics in no way offer a cure or restore our feet. And that the barefoot experience is not only healthy but in fact very pleasant—as countless people will attest to who enjoy walking around their homes unshod. There is something viscerally pleasurable about connecting with the ground and actually feeling what is underneath our feet. The sand at the beach, cool water in a stream, pebbles on a garden path, a soft but solid hardwood floor in the den or gravel on the tennis court: for those of us who say they want to “live in the moment” and “be fully present”, this is such an easy way to facilitate just that.
And so I shelved my orthotics and bought my first pair of barefoot shoes. The shop assistant told me repeatedly that it would take some time to get used to them. But I took to them like a pig takes to mud: I rolled my liberated trotters around in them with incredible glee. You should have seen how I walked, jumped, sauntered in that first pair! How I relished the freedom of my toes and the sensation of the street and how different that was from walking on grass or standing on the roots of a tree. Can you imagine being 40 years old and rediscovering the world in this way? This first pair of barefoot shoes would be the first of many—my inner Imelda is a survivor.
I learnt that if I relaxed my foot muscles and let my foot sort of “droop” over whatever obstacle was underfoot, that stone, root or ridge did not hurt at all. Containing 26 bones, 30 joints and more than 100 muscles and ligaments, the foot is amazingly adaptable. The arch serves as a natural spring, lending bounce and propulsion to our gait, while it can also create space to accommodate something unforgiving that we may have stepped on. The full weight of our body rests on our two arches or on just the one if we stand on one leg. One of the strongest structures to bear weight in architecture, is it not, the arch?
Our feet carry us for as long as we can walk. They let us stand, pace, run marathons, kick, push, leap, do taiji, dance, paint (My Left Foot) and much more. We can pick things up with them, we can massage them and engage them in other acts of intimacy—which brings me to my final point.
We can care for them.
For this reason, I have taken a foot bath at the end of every day ever since Master Gu suggested it as a healthy form of self-care. A nice, relaxing foot bath with a bit of a rub is, I have found, a wonderful way to express some gratitude to this part of myself that does its duty all day every day, quietly suffering all manner of abuse without hardly any complaint. It ends the day as it begins: in the morning I swing my legs out of bed and my feet receive my full weight, while the last thing I do is thank them for it and relieve them of duty when I lie down.
Where is the Daoism in all of this, I hear some of you ask. Yes, you’re absolutely right. All of this can indeed be read as a metaphor for a Daoist view of healthy living. My feet are not my subjects; they are an integral part of me and a gateway to the world. They connect me with the earth; they ground me. And just as every other part of me needs space to exist, so do they, my lowest extremities.
To live naturally, to be flexible and adaptable, to be soft and firm, to connect with the world, we need space to exist and a natural environment, lest we grow crooked and bent, painful and miserable. Fine-looking, purely aesthetically but non-functionally designed footwear does us a disservice in the long run. Orthotics may relieve pain but are like an addictive drug: they do not encourage the body to restore to its natural potential; in fact they further weaken and fixate us in an unhealthy status quo.
We are more than this. Just as our feet deserve and thrive with living space and self-care, so we can follow in their footsteps and thrive by tending to our needs with loving, grateful attention. In a natural way: that is the Dao.
Now if only the designers of Wudang taiji shoes learnt this lesson…